The Golden Vine

The Wild Grape is a Runaway with Potential.

Robert Meganck

Whether you are inclined to regard the wild grape as a noxious weed with invasive tendencies or an underappreciated biological bounty depends on your perspective. Undeniably a vine that can get carried away with itself, wild grape is also a fruit-bearing native whose virtues may be long overdue for recognition.

There are a number of different species of wild grape native to Virginia, deciduous vines that share a rambling, twining, climbing habit. The vines sprout from seeds spread by birds and animals that feast upon the fruit. Then, as they grow, they extend forked, coiling tendrils that wrap themselves tenaciously around whatever is handy, allowing the plant to clamber over fences, snake through shrubbery and climb high into the tree canopy. The vines can form dense tangles and, left undisturbed, can stretch to 80 or more feet and grow thicker around than a man’s thigh.

It is for these habits that the wild grape gets a bad rap.

“From a forest management perspective, wild grape is a weed,” says Clifford Ambers, owner of Chateau Z Vineyard in Amherst County. “Because grapes are adapted to popping up and getting going when there is an opening in the forest, if you clear-cut or do a major thinning, the landscape just goes riot with grapes.”

Where others see a problem, however, Ambers sees possibility. American wine-making depends heavily on Vitis vinifera, the care-intensive European wine grape that nevertheless produces grapes with just the right sugar content, juiciness and ineffable wine-ish-ness to which our wine-drinking palates have become accustomed. Native wild grapes are generally more robust and resistant to pests and diseases than V. vinifera grapes, but also tend to be less juicy and more acidic and have a more pronounced flavor. (If you really want to insult a wine made from native grapes, call it “foxy,” a term that, Ambers says, denotes the grapey quality familiar to Americans as the taste of Welch’s Grape Juice.)

But what if you could breed a hybrid that married the best qualities of native and V. vinifera to produce an exceptional, disease-and-pest-resistant wine grape? That’s what Ambers is trying to do in his home vineyard; though he produces about 150 cases of wine each year, his real focus, he says, is “grape breeding.” He roots cuttings from wild grape vines, pollinates them with pollen from one of the many cultivated grape varieties he also grows, harvests the resulting grapes, plants their seeds, then waits a couple of years for the hybrid to bear fruit to see what he gets.If he hasn’t yet created the next cabernet sauvignon, he’s had satisfying results over the years. “You can very easily take any nasty wild grape and, in one hybridization, produce grapes you would be happy to grow in your backyard,” he says.

Michael Lachance, the extension agent for commercial horticulture for the Virginia Cooperative Extension, would like to see more people like Ambers exploring native grapes, bringing to winemaking the same kind of enthusiasm for the local and small-scale that has inspired the microbrewery revolution in beer. “I would love the day to come when county fairs have wine tastings not just of local wineries but also from families and individuals who have made incredible wines in their own homes,” he says.

History suggests, moreover, that a world-class grape could be born of a Virginia native. Sometime around the 1820s, one Dr. Daniel Norborne Norton produced a hybrid grape in his Richmond garden from the native Vitis aestivalis, or “summer grape.” The Norton grape was a hit and soon came to dominate American wine-making in the East and the Midwest:

In 1873, a Norton wine even won a gold medal at the Vienna World Exposition. Though Prohibition destroyed America’s nascent viticulture and many of its vineyards for a time, some Nortons survived to be reintroduced and are being grown again today in American vineyards like Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg, which produces several all-Norton wines.

So that grape vine running amok amidst your azalea? It could be a weed. Or it could be the future of American winemaking.   

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